I got my first guitar pedal for Christmas in 1973-an original orange MAR Phase 90. (Would that I had kept it, a vintage pedal like that could finance quite the range of projects at this point!) I bought my first best digital reverb pedal-the Yamaha R1000-in 1983 (four, count ’em, four reverb settings, going all the way to 1.9 seconds…), and in the 90s, I flew around the world with a rack full of preamps and processors that weighed exactly 69.9 lbs. (Overweight charges on airlines started at 70 lbs. in those days). Guitar pedals, or, to be more precise, high-impedance, unbalanced 1/4″ input analog and digital sound processing equipment, has been a significant part of what I do both as a guitarist and as a composer for several decades.
There are thousands of pedals out there; so how do you decide what you want or need? Here’s a quick guide to the questions you need to ask yourself before you slap down your hard-earned cash.
So, why do you want or need this pedal? Some possible answers:
- I want to sound like guitarist X, and he/she uses this pedal.
- I have certain sound in my head; this pedal gets me that sound.
- I want to explore some new sounds and I am willing to take a chance and see what happens.
If you really want to sound like a specific player, research what they use and buy it. This can be tricky, as well-known players often use a complex array of commercial and custom-built guitars and gear, but it can be done.
If you are looking for your own sound, a big question is: do I want the guitar to always be recognizable as a “guitar,” or am I interested in pushing into sound design, ambient sounds, textures, and the like. The electric guitar is a very flexible instrument.
If maintaining the “guitar” sound is what you want, you are looking for a range of traditional pedals like overdrive, best delay pedal, hanger, wah-wah, reverb, etc. If you’re interested in pushing beyond the mainstream boundaries, then things like multi-voiced harmonisers, reverse delays and reverbs, ring modulators, and extreme filters are what you are looking for. And don’t forget loopers, so you can create many layers of guitar sounds using live multi-tracking. It is possible, and interesting, to combine the two approaches.
Digital Or Analog? Discrete Pedals Or Multi-Effects?
Life is full of difficult decisions, but this is not one of them. Use your ears. Does the pedal have a clear, transparent sound (good)? Is there a lot of background noise (bad)? Is the sound too metallic or harsh (bad)? Is it well constructed (good-we do play these things with our feet)? Try to listen though a good amp (or headphones) when testing. If the amp is noisy or dull-sounding, you won’t hear exactly what’s there, and what the effect really sounds like.
Digital effects tend to affect the sound of the guitar with more “artifacts” (undesirable changes in basic tone) than analog effects, but contemporary digital processors are getting very good. Again, listen to the dry signal then compare it with the affected sound.
Having one pedal for each effect is the more traditional approach. This gives you complete control over each element, both in terms of sounds and in performance, but it means carrying around 5-10 pedals, which gets both cumbersome and expensive.
The other option is the multi-effect. These are very convenient and have very flexible programming so you can usually get an amazing range of sounds from one box, but there is a compromise. Almost all multi-effects (except very high-end products) do affect the guitar tone, at least a little bit. It may also take more time to manipulate and master these units.
I use a mixed approach. Currently, I use four discrete pedals (a programmable analog distortion, a ring modulator/harmonizer, a delay line/harmonizer, and a delay line/looper). In the middle of all of this, I use a small multi-effects unit, which gives me a huge range of other sounds that I can add to my core pedal sounds. There is a small compromise in terms of sound, but it is fairly minimal, especially for a live gig. In studio, I am at times a bit fussier.
The simple answer? Only use pedals when you really need them.
In the studio, if I am recording a straight guitar sound, I unplug all pedals. If I am using delay, I just plug in delay. The idea is to always get the most raw guitar signal into the computer (I was going to say “on tape,” like it was Christmas 1973 and I am opening my MXR Phase 90). Pedals always affect your sound, so be aware of that. If you take a bit of time and think about why you are using a pedal, which pedal will achieve your musical goal, and when you should use it (remember, pedals can be turned off), then they can be an invaluable resource to developing your musical ideas as a guitarist.
Tim Brady is a composer and electric guitarist who’s been active in the new/experimental/contemporary music scene since 1980. He’s released 19 CDs and has toured extensively in Canada, the US, Europe, and Australia. Recent performances include the X-Avant Festival in Toronto and performances with Symphony Nova Scotia, the Toronto Symphony, and the Orchestre symphonique de Laval. For upcoming CD and touring info, visit www.timbrady.ca.